New flotilla en route to Gaza Strip nearing coast

Update, 10:00 A.M. Friday, Israel time: Flotilla activists report they are some 80 miles from the Gaza Coast. Army Radio reports that Israel Navy ships are already at sea, set to stop the ships from reaching the coastal territory. AFP quotes a flotilla spokesperson who says all ship passengers have pledged not to resist an Israeli naval interception.  Meanwhile, Gazans await the ships at the port.

Amid growing international wrangling over the Palestinian statehood bid, activists with the flotilla movement on Wednesday launched another attempt to sail to the Gaza Strip in a challenge to Israel’s siege of the coastal territory. Dozens of international activists on board the two ships – the Canadian “Tahrir” and the Irish “Saoirse” – reached international waters late Wednesday afternoon.

The flotilla, dubbed “Freedom Waves for Gaza,” is carrying medical aid left over from the summer’s previous flotilla attempt. Organizers say that they expect to reach Gazan waters on Friday afternoon.

A press release stated that among the 27 activists on board the two ships is Majd Kayyal, a Palestinian student from Haifa. The press release quotes him as saying:

Israel has caged Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, prohibiting physical contact between us. We want to break the siege Israel has imposed on our people… The fact that we’re in international waters is already a victory for the movement. Israel’s siege of Gaza is untenable and it’s a moral responsibility to put an end to this injustice.”

At roughly 4 P.M. Israel time, the New York-based independent media outlet Democracy Now!, which has embedded journalists on the Tahrir, tweeted to their more than 125,000 followers that the Canadian ship had set sail from an undisclosed eastern Mediterranean port. An Al Jazeera crew is also aboard the Tahrir.

Due to a misunderstanding of Turkish maritime law, which limits the number of passengers aboard a ship sailing for more than 24 hours, only some one-third of the activists intending to sail actually embarked.

Ehab Lotayef, an organizer on the Canadian ship, was quoted as saying:

The Palestinians living in Gaza want solidarity not charity, and have made it clear to the world that their primary demand is for freedom. While humanitarian aid is helpful, Gazans are still prisoners with no freedom of movement… Israel’s illegal blockade prevents not only imports into Gaza, but exports as well. And the blockade prevents Palestinians from moving freely between Gaza and the West Bank, in violation of fundamental human rights.

+972 reported last week that activist ships had planned to set sail from Turkey this past Sunday. The Free Gaza Movement, a coalition of groups coordinating flotilla initiatives, denied the report. Wednesday’s move could further strain Israel-Turkey relations, which have been on the brink of collapse since an Israeli flotilla raid in May 2010 killed nine Turkish citizens. Recent reports suggested that Turkey intended to provide naval accompaniment for future flotillas, but the two ships that sailed on Wednesday did so alone.

The Tahrir unsuccessfully attempted to sail from Crete last July. The American ship that planned to sail from Athens is still under Greek military impound.

Noa Yachot contributed to this report